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The baggage we carry

The darkest night will greet the dawn.

I often wonder just how free I am? One of the things in my life, and I suspect in most people’s lives, is the baggage we carry. What weighs us down? What are the prejudices, the antagonism, the hurts and anger, the bitter memories that hold us back from being our best and freest self?

One of the most powerful encounters of my life took place at a retreat centre west of Sydney. I had been working in a homeless shelter for some months and was loving the experience. The leader of the community, Sister Anne Jordan pbvm announced that we were to go on retreat in a couple of months time. At first, in my arrogance, I thought that it was only Anne, the priest who lived in the community (Fr Brian Stoney sj), another Religious and myself who was to go on this retreat. As the day of the retreat drew closer I realised that the retreat was for everyone in the Cana Community; the ‘staff’, the volunteers and all the associated homeless people who made up the community. On the day we left for the retreat I can still remember looking around and seeing people who had been engaged in every form of substance abuse, sex workers, people who had just come out of goal, some about to go in and everything and everybody in between. As I looked around the naïve Religious Brother, Damien, saw tattoos and rings in places I could never imagine one could wear same. To say I was a little nervous would be an understatement.

When we arrived at the retreat centre – about sixty of us, we gathered after what had seemed to me to be an endless round of cigarettes and cups of coffee. Sister Anne sat at the front and the retreat began. I can still remember sitting there with notebook in hand, pen poised, about to take ‘notes’ to reflect on. Anne simply asked, “What colour is God?” Immediately I arrogantly thought “What a stupid question!” More importantly in my arrogance I thought, “What would these street people, drug users and sex workers, ex-prisoners and homeless ones, alcoholics and people with many forms of mental illness know about theology and spirituality? Would they even understand Anne’s question!” What arrogance!

Immediately after the very brief input I began pacing up and down in a grassed courtyard ‘meditating’ on Anne’s question as I had been taught to do when on retreat. Everyone else was gathered outside the dining hall laughing and sharing cigarettes and another cup of coffee. I in my religious arrogance was fuming. Finally Anne rang a bell and we all gathered in our small groups to share our reflections on the topic. In my small group of six I was the only NORMAL person. In my arrogance I somehow thought I was above the other members of the group who had all lived and worked on the streets and knew the toughness of life. Noone spoke for a few seconds until a rather large woman who had been a sex worker in Melbourne broke the silence. She said something like this;

Well seeing no one else is talking – I’ll start. My God is green! You see, I have been a prostitute – don’t do much these days – too old for it – but when I had worked the streets of St Kilda in Melbourne from 8 pm until 5 am – and I came back to my room exhausted and sore – sometimes I have been bashed, sometimes raped – often cold and always feeling empty – I lay down on my little cot in my small boarding house room. I curl up in a ball and I look at the wall. On the wall I have an old poster with Psalm 23 on it. I slowly read that Psalm; My God is the God of green pastures who leads me by the waters of life, who refreshes my hurting spirit – my shepherd God calls me – gently by name – he knows me – he sure does – and he looks out for me – yeh, my God is Green!

I can remember being stunned by her reply. I remember sensing that I was in the presence of a mystic – someone who had truly encountered God. I remember being in awe of this former prostitute who, despite all the violence in her life, despite all the pain and suffering, despite the many people who had hurt her and let her down – she could still fall asleep with a profound sense of her God – her shepherd God – wrapping loving arms around her.

After my tattooed and multi ring pierced friend had shared the others in the circle shared powerful stories too and each in their turn had a colour for ‘this mystery we call love’. When my turn came, I felt totally speechless and felt that my feeble sharing was almost completely from the head.

The following day an almost identical event occurred. This time Anne’s reflection question was, “What baggage do you carry?” I am so grateful that I had enough sense this time to join in the laughter and the coffee rather than walking up and down in my religious superiority. When we gathered the group shared one by one of domestic violence, of rape, of being bashed in prison, of layers of hurt and anger that was holding them back. As they shared I was in awe of their self awareness but most significantly, I was in awe of their KNOWING that their deep and true freedom lay in their ability to ‘let go’, to ‘move on’ and to know that they are totally and unconditionally loved. They KNEW, not in a head sense, but in a ‘gut’ sense that much of the justifiable pain and hurt that they carried was baggage. But they also KNEW that the road to their internal personal freedom was through acceptance, forgiveness and healing.

I can still remember our small group’s final group hug. I can still remember leaving the retreat knowing that while the great mystics have much to offer from their heart journeys – I could and did learn even more from simple heart people who trusted me with their vulnerability and stories.

Yes, we all carry baggage – it is a part of life. Yes, we all have our skeletons in our cupboards – it is part of being human. Yes, in our ego driven arrogance and sometimes fear we want to cling to baggage as it gives us some weird justification, some reason to stay angry, some excuse not to dance, some warped pleasure in a heart hardening bitterness.

I am old enough to remember Bette Midler singing ‘The Rose’. I think I loved that song because something in it spoke to my own heart longing when I recalled my own pain and hurt and struggles.

Some say love, it is a river, that drowns the tender reed – some say love, it is a razor, that leave your soul to bleed – some say love, it is a hunger, an endless aching need! I say love, it is a flower, and you, its only seed.

It’s the heart, afraid of breaking – that never learns to dance, it’s the dream, afraid of waking, that never takes the chance – it’s the one, who won’t be taken, who cannot seem to give, and the soul, afraid of dying, that never learns to live.

When the night has been too lonely, and the road has been too long, and you think that love is only, for the lucky and the strong, just remember in the winter, far beneath the bitter snows, lies the seed that with the sun’s love, in the spring – become the rose!

Those mystics – who call the streets and boarding houses home had something special, something sacred about them – some sparkle in their eyes that told me that from their hearts and not their heads, they could easily have written that song; perhaps they did!

4 thoughts on “The baggage we carry”

  1. Thank you so much for sharing Damien. This Easter is a different celebration for me and my siblings. We have gathered at our family home to pack away our sister’s life. Denise died on Monday March 8th. This weekend will be a time of discovery for each of us, if only we can open our hearts and leave our baggage at the front door. 💕🙏 Cathy

    1. Dear Cathy, in my heart at this time. It is not an easy time. Sadly times like us can bring up both wonderful but also painful memories. I am reminded of the words of Eckhart Tolle when he says that great questions and great pain asks of us great presence. The bigger the block, the baggage – the bigger that presence required to not ‘react’ to it. One step at a time. God bless, Damien

  2. Helena Fedorec Sweeney

    Oh wow. So powerful. My greatest learning experience was working as a Prison Chaplain in the Women’s Prison – those women shared experiences, reflections and desires that left me speechless, humbled and in awe before their encounter with the divine. This is a blog entry that I keep returning to. And ‘The Rose’ is the song that Mark, ex Christian Brother and aware that he was approaching death, chose for our wedding six weeks before his death from leukaemia. Seriously – wow. And thank you.

  3. Thank you Damien for sharing this memory and for the poignant memories you’ve helped recall of Anne and Brian and the kind-hearted ‘mystics’ I met at Cana also. Who taught me much about what it was like to really care and stand alongside another person in their pain and suffering but also the gift of a shared moment of mutual understanding and compassion. The small joys were very real. Visiting a couple who had gotten their own flat sometime later was such a gift – of friendship, of God’s love. Thank you for the memory.

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